Emily Labhart

thinking about dance, arts management and cultural representation

SYTYCD: The Next Generation, Dancehall

So You Think You Can Dance is a very specific brand of dance television that generally showcases the following features:

  • Specific gender roles: e.g the weeping/angry/sexy woman and the strong/immovable/dominant man
  • Tricks tricks tricks: can you kick yourself in the head? Can you backflip? Can you do 2348594304 fouettes? You’re in.
  • Oh so commercial: the pieces are very ‘audience friendly’, nearly always having an obvious narrative, the dancer’s faces are so expressive it’s like watching a cartoon…I could go on.

SYTYCD is now running a new programme, The Next Generation involving young dancers aged 8-13 years and pairing them up with SYTYCD All-Stars (previous adult contestants/winners of the show).

The above video shows young dancer Tahani and ‘All-Star’ Comfort performing a Dancehall routine, the first time the style has ever been included on the show. The piece was choreographed by Laure Courtellemont whose class I previously took and wrote another post about here.

In all honesty, the piece is really poor. I actually can’t believe it’s Courtellemont’s and can only assume that she was heavily guided and/or restricted by the SYTYCD production team. Even down to the choice of track: going for a Sean Paul song, who is widely considered to make commercial Dancehall tracks that are suitable for mainstream listeners, as opposed to artists whose music is played and celebrated in the Dancehall space in Jamaica. Choosing Mavado or Popcaan or Alkaline for example, would have really helped to bring the culture behind the style to the stage.

Some of the key steps are there, for example heel and toe, tic toc, and more recent steps like paper bag and MVP – but the vibe and energy of Dancehall is totally lost in this piece, to make way for the SYTYCD brand features mentioned above.

Admittedly, when anything is taken out of it’s original context, the form will undergo a shift or change in order to accommodate it’s new locale (referred to as appropriation, often aligned with theory of hybridity where two different cultures meet and are subsequently altered, creating a new language or form – see the works of Frantz Fanon or Homi K. Bhabha for more info). It would have been better to recognise these changes and call the piece something else, as opposed to giving the impression that the work is a genuine example of Dancehall.

There is also a discourse around why Laure was approached to choreograph the work, who has forged her own style from Dancehall called Ragga Jam, but isn’t considered a Dancehall artist. Particularly when this is the first time Dancehall is seen on the SYTYCD platform.

An example of Courtellemont’s previous choreography. Notice the title of the video, choice of song and also the reference on screen (at the end) to the Dancehall steps this piece was based upon. Though the performers in this video of course have a more advanced level of experience within the form, the piece still seems wholly different in it’s approach in comparison to the work created for SYTYCD.

I imagine that SYTYD approached Laure because she is now based in LA, and does have a world-wide following and reputation for her work in Ragga Jam. Having taken her class, she is definitely an ambassador or advocate for Dancehall culture and it’s artists, always crediting them and being careful to ensure that she is clear in Ragga being inspired by Dancehall and not a true representation of Dancehall as it exists in Jamaica. For SYTYCD it could perhaps have been seen as less of a risk to go with a European choreographer like Laure, who is more ‘familiar’ than, say Jamaican or African-American Dancehall artists – who may or may not be willing to adapt their craft for SYTYCD means. This of course is a huge problem but is, unfortunately, not uncommon.

I actually really struggled to watch the piece, and the judge’s critique at the end is a complete embarrassment. It’s clear none of them have any knowledge or understanding of Dancehall, bickering about where the style comes from and then asking the dancers for the answer! It felt like the ‘token cultural piece’ for the evening and as though the show just wanted to tap in to another potential audience of Dancehall dancers – perhaps wanting to be seen as ‘moving with the times’.

Those who are passionate about Dancehall who watched the show will be, I’m sure, as disappointed if not as outraged as I am that this is how the form and culture is being represented on mainstream media (or on this show in particular, for the first time). I’m curious to see how SYTYCD will continue to use Laure and whether they will allow her to create Ragga in a way those who follow her are familiar with, as opposed to what we’ve seen today. I do rate Laure as a choreographer and Ragga Jam artist/pioneer, but I feel SYTYCD wasn’t the right platform, particularly under the term ‘Dancehall’, and the piece therefore didn’t represent Dancehall style and culture accurately.

I hope that SYTYCD will recognise the gaps in their own knowledge and representation of the form. I’m keen to see where they go from here.

 

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